St Bernard’s four steps of love are based on the idea that love is our whole reason for existing, and that the development that takes place in our spiritual life is almost like a process of re-education that gradually moves us away from self love toward loving God, and that of God in the other people that we meet. In the fulfilment of the final step we love ourselves for God’s sake. In other words, we no longer love our self except with God, through God, and for God. We finally understand that in God we live, and move, and have our being, and that ultimately our true self is in him. St Bernard, and those who have commented later on his text, understand that in this life this fourth degree of love may rarely be attained, and then only for a short time.
It will be something that happens to us – an act of grace and fully at our death when we move out of the material and into the spiritual dimension. St Bernard likens the experience to the drop of water disappearing in wine; to molten iron taking the form of fire; and to the air transformed into sunshine on a sunny day.
If we understand the four steps of love, which Etienne Gilson calls ‘the apprenticeship of charity’ as a path of continuous conversion and gradual assimilation with the divine life, then, it makes sense that this last step can only be glimpsed in this life. It can happen in our action towards another, we can experience it in moments of suffering, and it can sometimes be captured in poetry; and it may happen in contemplation.
Thomas Merton writing about this state of being says that it means that we are not lost in God, rather, in our true self, we can be found in God in all our personal and individual reality. In other words we become the person we are meant to be. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion writes about something very similar when he says that there is an ultimate reality that cannot be known but only be ‘become’- that is it is possible to be at one with it. It stands for the truth and for him ultimate reality can be thought of as a vast reservoir of infinite possibilities.
One person who glimpsed this fourth step of love even in the unlikely setting of Westerbork concentration camp was Etty Hillesum. Towards the end of her life she writes that for her the inner realms of spirit and soul remain spacious and unending even amongst physical and mental suffering and the threat of imminent death. She writes of her life as an uninterrupted dialogue with God, ‘one great dialogue’.
She wrote: ‘Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on Your earth, my eyes raised towards Your heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie in my bed and rest in You, O God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer… I just end up with one single word: God. And that says everything…’